This post is coming a few weeks late, but life and preparing to leave has kept us rather busy! We are both now in Prague for a few days, and the pace has slowed considerably!
On our third-to-last weekend in Ulsan, Sara and I headed up to Seoul to join the USO tour of Panmunjeom (the Joint Security Area) and the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea. The tour was bizarre mix of history and propaganda regarding an even more bizarre historical and geo-political situation.
I read a story one time about this Japanese soldier who had been stationed at a lonely outpost in the Philippines in WWII. Things happened, and he lost contact with his command. He finally surrendered in 1974. He had no idea that WWII had been over for several decades. That’s kind of how this tour felt. The entire thing seemed like stepping back in time 30 or 40 years. It’s like the Cold War ended, but no one bothered to inform North Korea.
The Korean War is technically still ongoing today. However, a ceasefire was reached in 1954, and a demilitarized zone (DMZ) was created. The 4-km wide 250-km long border between the divided Koreas remains the most militarized region in the entire world. A series of white fenceposts placed every 10 meters demarcates the border. The DMZ extends out for 2 km on either side. Lining the edge of the DMZ are anti-tank walls and signs warning of land mines.
As we took the bus up from Seoul, we drove up a river which flows from the North into the South. The river is lined solid with fences and spotted with manned guard towers at regular intervals. After a short drive, we arrived at Panmunjeom. The Joint Security Area (JSA) is the UN-run, official location for talks between the two Koreas. There’s a line of concrete slabs running through the center of the JSA, which runs through and cuts several buildings in half. North and South Korean soldiers face off against each other every day, staring at each other from across the line. The central building is the one used for talks, and even here the line of demarcation is clear.
Perhaps the most bizarre part of the tour happened on the bus as we were leaving the JSA and headed to our next destination. Our tour guide explained that there are two villages located inside the DMZ. One is operated by the North and the other by the South. These villages are meant to be signs of good faith between the two countries. “The names of these villages,” our tour guide told us, “are ‘Freedom Village’ and ‘Propaganda Village.'” I immediately glanced around the bus to see if anyone caught the irony.
It turns out the irony didn’t stop there. Residents of the so-called “Freedom Village” live under a perpetual state of martial law. They are required to back in the village by 6pm and be inside with the lights out by 9pm. If a resident spends too many days away, they can be ejected permanently from the village. Life in “Freedom Village” sounds pretty great, especially compared to “Propaganda Village”! The entire thing just blew my mind. I still can’t wrap my mind around the blatant contradictions, and the seemingly complete obliviousness of our tour guide.
From there we visited the last train station in South Korea before the tracks head into the North. The tracks exist and the infrastructure is there, but North Korea does not allow trains from South Korea to cross into it. South Korea seems open and willing to allow train travel, but the North disallows it. It was actually kind of sad. Although Korea is a peninsula, South Korea remains an island, essentially cut off from the mainland by its neighbors to the north. Instead of being able to connect to the rest of the continent and the Trans-Siberian Railway, travel to South Korea is restricted to sea or air.
Next we visited the 3rd Infiltration Tunnel. North Korea dug four (known) tunnels into South Korea. This tunnel is 350m below ground and over a mile long. It is apparently big enough for North Korean soldiers to march two by two through, however in most places it was too short for me to stand up straight. I was thankful for the hardhat, as I bumped my head on the ceiling a good, several dozen times.
Our last stop of the day was to the Dora observatory. From here you could get a sweeping view into the North. For 50 cents, you could look through telescopes and see more clearly the goings-on in the North. I didn’t really notice until Sara mentioned it later, but neither of us remember seeing any cars driving around on the roads. We also got a decent view of the world’s 3rd-tallest flagpole, touting a 600-pound North Korean flag.
Despite all the blatant propaganda, one cool thing about the tour was the strong focus on reunification. While they had little positive to say about the government of North Korea, they refrained from alienating the people of North Korea. After all, many families were torn apart when Korea split. Every South Korean I’ve talked to hopes that they will one day be reunified.